Stand down, grammar police

JAN 11 / 18

Stand down, grammar police


Some of the rules that govern your writing are just plain fake

Call it an occupational hazard, but in my experience, people are wary of editors.

They seem to believe we’re modern-day schoolmarms, ready to slap down every imperfect usage that passes beneath our upturned noses.

And, okay, there’s a smidgen of truth to that: most editors can spot an error a hundred miles away, like a twister on the prairie.

But some of the most common grammatical “errors”—the kind that trip up well-meaning writers and give them lifelong nightmares about prepositions—aren’t errors at all, and if anyone tries to argue with you, you can tell them politely that their high horse is made of Styrofoam.

Here are some of the most common phony rules:

1. Never split an infinitive

Remember the smug glee you felt when you realized that the Starship Enterprise’s mission statement—“to boldly go where no man has gone before”—was wrong, wrong, wrong? “That’s a split infinitive!” you squealed at the top of your fifth-grade lungs. (Or was that just me?)

An infinitive is basically “to” plus the simple form of a verb (to come, to see, to conquer). To split it is to stick a word or several between them.

This is not a no-no after all, and a sentence like “It’s best to always do your research before you make a fool of yourself” gets a pass from today’s (and, in fact, most of yesterday’s) grammarians.

Let the Enterprise keep doing its thing.

2. Never end a sentence with a preposition

Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to keep prepositions (of, by, for, from, in, on, with, about, before, after, etc.) from bringing up the rear of your sentence—for example, replacing the perfectly lovely “There is no one to dance with” with the fussy “There is no one with whom to dance.”

The Chicago Manual of Style calls this a “caveat of yesteryear,” quoting Winston Churchill’s delicious (but probably apocryphal) takedown of the so-called rule: “That is the type of errant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

3. Never begin a sentence with conjunctions like “and” or “but”

But why not? Chicago claims that up to 10% of the sentences in first-class writing begin with conjunctions, and what’s more, “it has been so for centuries.”

The wise manual then goes on to quote author Charles Allen Lloyd’s 1938 rejoinder to this preposterous injunction, which I believe cannot be improved upon: “No textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.”

4. Never use “they” or “their” when referring to one person

Many a sentence has been needlessly reformulated to avoid using a plural third-person pronoun in a singular context: “Did anyone leave their headlights on? No, wait—did anyone leave his or her headlights on? Or ... uh ... are there any drivers present who left their headlights on?”

English has no gender-neutral third-person pronoun—no word that stands in for both “he” and “she”—other than “one,” and it makes for awkward situations.

While, as of its 17th edition, Chicago still says it’s best to avoid using singular “they” and “their” in a formal context (e.g., academic writing, which, it should be noted, most marketing is not), the American Dialect Society voted singular “they” as its 2015 word of the year, and the Washington Post has accepted it into its style guide. Other publications are sure to follow.

The times, they are a-changin’. (Or maybe they aren’t: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen all used “their” in the singular.)

5. Use “I” or “myself,” not “me”

Okay, this one probably never made it into any official rulebooks, but lots of folks seem to think that using “me” in a sentence is the dumb way out.

So you get sentences like “Grammar is a touchy topic for Rahim and I” and “The expert panel included Mr. Strunk, Mr. White and myself.”

And I know I said I don’t take particular pleasure in pointing out when things are wrong, but those sentences are wrong.

Use the first-person pronoun that makes sense when you remove the other people: “Grammar is a touchy topic for me,” “The expert panel included me.”

Reserve “myself” for when you’re also the one doing the action in the sentence: “I bought a case of wine for myself”—a sentence that works well on multiple levels, if I do say so myself.





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